As far as kart racers go, developers across the board adopt the same formula from one game to the next: create a few wacky tracks, throw in a slew of power-ups and boost pads, and place a popular mascot on the box cover for a little brand recognition. While this formula has worked in the past, the genre could certainly benefit from some originality, and from what we’ve seen in our latest hands-on with ModNation Racers, True Crime developer United Front Games is poised to deliver just that.

ModNation Racers follows the “Play, Create, Share” style adopted by Media Molecule’s LittleBigPlanet, giving players access to developer-created levels plus the tools needed to flex their own creative muscles. The “Play” element of ModNation Racers is essentially what you’ve come to expect from a family-friendly kart racer. As you zoom across tracks you’ll encounter item pods that you can expend immediately or accumulate three in a row to increase the item’s potency. With these power-ups you’ll unleash a storm of missiles on opponents, strike and stun competitors with lightning bolts, and more. These items – along with branching track paths and boost pads – give you an edge over the competition.

Derby and farm-themed tracks available in the preview build offered rewards for completing certain tasks during races, which in one case involved hitting three boost pads before crossing the finish line. Players who meet these goals will be rewarded with items at the end of the race that can be used in ModNation’s Creation Station. This area is one of many found in the game’s central hub, ModSpot, where players will likely spend the bulk of their time tweaking custom mods to perfection.

Our foray into creation began with character customization. You can either start with a clean slate or automatically generate a random character with a push of a button. Of course, with the staggering amount of customization options ModNation Racers has to offer, creating a character from scratch is the most desirable option. The collection of character skins available are made up of gorgeous design palettes with an almost polycarbonate finish that can easily find a place in a modern art museum. Some of the other more gruesome designs would likely find a place in a blood spatter report, if that’s the look you’re going for. United Front has a keen eye for design and presentation, and character models look incredible in crisp HD.

When creating your character’s mug, the options are seemingly endless. You can set up two individual eyes from different pairs, then select from among 22 categories of mouths from grillz to braces with just over a dozen options in each category. Add customizable clothes, stickers, and accessories to the mix for more personality, and customize each item’s size, color, and even texture. With the breadth of options initially available to players, and even more to be unlocked, you’ll be hard pressed to find a pair of identical twins on the tracks.

Kart mods are equally comprehensive with customization options that allow you to choose your vehicle type. You can aim for an elegant show mobile, a rugged off-road racer, or any of the other bountiful vehicle options. Trick out your color scheme using stunning preloaded swatches or a color wheel. Pimp out your exposed engine and dip your rear suspension for a low rider effect, or crank up the suspension for a monster truck. Add a final touch of flair to your whip with a giant satellite dish antenna on your hood, throw some spinners on your tires, and you’re ready to hit developer-created or custom-made tracks brought to life by your fellow racing brethren.

The track creation option is where your imagination will truly run wild. Use a steamroller to lay out your track on an open expanse of land, add natural elements in the form of trees or wildlife, and tinker with the elements to adjust everything from the positioning of the sun to the amount of cloud cover on your track. Tutorials are available to guide you through some of the more complex creation options at any time, but just from our hands-on experience, the user-friendly interface made creating simple tracks a cinch.

With the amount of creative control offered by United Front Games, ModNation Racers has the potential to breathe new life into the kart racing circuit in the same way LittleBigPlanet broke new ground for platformers. From what we’ve played so far, they’re on the right track.

Keep an eye on our site later today for exclusive ModNation Racer videos showcasing the breadth of character customization and track building options that will be available when the game hits stores May 25. For more hands-on with the track builder from the GDC show floor, click here.